Baltimore's War Memorial is home for a new concert series by mostly local artists

The most beautiful concert venue in the city that no one knows about

As audience member Paul Cassedy sat in Baltimore's War Memorial listening to a song cycle based on Dante's "Inferno," he felt as though he were accompanying the medieval Italian poet on his mythic journey through the nine circles of hell.

"The setting in the War Memorial was in some ways quite perfect," said Cassedy, a 55-year-old Baltimorean. He'd attended an April 23 performance of "a breath upwards" by composer Michael Hersch.

"As Dante was traveling into the underworld, the audience was listening to the concert in this big building with columns that's a memorial to the First World War," Cassedy said. "It was almost like being inside a cave. The setting perfectly reflected the majesty of the music."

Responses such as Cassedy's are, well, music to the ears of the organizers of the new concert series in one of Baltimore's grandest — and most underused — civic spaces.

The imposing white Neoclassical building fronted by six columns has been a local landmark since it was dedicated in 1925. In addition, the auditorium has become a familiar sight to American moviegoers and television viewers.

The Netflix series "House of Cards," the HBO political comedy "Veep" and the 2004 film "Ladder 49" starring John Travolta have shot scenes in the building.

But most Baltimoreans seldom found reason to venture inside, where they could enjoy the travertine marble interior and a large-scale allegorical battle mural while reflecting on the significance of the building's eternal flame. In 1977, the building was rededicated by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to all Marylanders who gave their lives in wars.

"People who are passing by who come inside say, 'I've lived in Baltimore my whole life and I've never been in here,'" said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, who manages the historic site. "We'd like to bring in a younger, more diverse audience to see this beautiful building."

The War Memorial now attracts about 40,000 visitors a year — up from the 25,000 that visited three years ago. Gilman-Forlini wants to increase that to 55,000 visitors by 2018, and thinks the concert series will help him do so. Tickets for most concerts will cost $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. Veterans and active members of the military will be admitted free.

The 10th musical event will be held this weekend, when a new local chamber orchestra called Symphony Number One presents its debut concert.

Gilman-Forlini dreamed up the concert series after he discovered documents indicating that the Memorial had been the home of the Johns Hopkins Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s.

The building's largest and most elaborate room, Memorial Hall, can seat 1,100 and has a stage large enough to hold a full orchestra. More intimate events could be held in the smaller Assembly Hall, which can accommodate up to 250 people.

He hired Joshua Bornfield, composer-in-residence for the Johns Hopkins University, to put together a series of roughly two dozen concerts annually. Bornfield has plans to feature performances by mostly local artists.

"We have world-class performers in this city," Bornfield reasoned, "and people who are eager to hear them."

The first event in the series was February's Concert for Peace organized by Tia Price, a 25-year-old Baltimore volunteer. She envisioned the concert as a response to the death of Michael Brown, an African-American teen who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

She brought together 50 local artists, including rappers and a gospel choir, that she hoped would attract audience members of all races and different political views. Despite a water main break that blocked nearby streets, about 200 people made it through the front doors.

"If you're not a classical musician, you don't usually get the opportunity to perform in the best halls." Price said.

"The musicians got to hear what they sounded like when they were performing without amplification. The sound embraced the performers, and they knew that it was embracing the audience as well.

"And that was very touching, because the purpose of music is to bring people together who wouldn't normally be in the same space, and to engage them in conversation."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Symphony Number One will present its debut concert at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the War Memorial, 101 N. Gay St. Suggested donation: $15. For details, call 410-396-1559 or go to wmaibaltimore.org.

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